A grateful recipient named Bonnie." That’s how I finally signed my letter to the family of a teenage girl who, in the midst of absorbing the horror of her sudden death, decided to donate her organs.
I was first diagnosed as needing a new liver in September of ’00’ and was put on the New York Organ Donor Network’s list of people needing transplants. Waiting was agonizing, especially as my condition became more dire. In November ‘006, I read an article by Lois Goldrich in The Jewish Standard, entitled "Organ donation called a mitzvah." While countering the misconception that the Jewish law that prevents harming a corpse precludes organ donation, she articulated how many people, both nationally and locally, were awaiting transplants. The numbers were staggering. After reading, I had to stop and take a deep breath. I already had been on the list for four years. Would there ever be a liver donated for me?
Thankfully, during this time I had a fantastic support system. My wonderful family and incredible friends listened, prayed and helped keep up my spirits. And on May 4, ‘007, my "miracle" occurred. At about 10 a.m., the surgical team called me to come to the hospital. At 1 p.m. the surgery began, and at 7:30 that evening I was recuperating in the Intensive Care Unit.
When I awoke the next morning and realized I was alive, I was overwhelmed by an immediate feeling of gratitude. I thought of the people who sat with my husband in the waiting room for seven hours and the chain of phone calls that had begun on my behalf. So many lives were affected. Unfortunately, the joyous news that was spreading on my behalf came as a result of sorrow to another family. I regretted that, but hoped that one day I would be able to communicate the feeling of joy and relief that came as a result of the girl’s "gift of life" and to ease the pain of her family’s sorrow.
But putting those feelings into words doesn’t come easy. How does one express joy and sorrow at the same time? I began the letter many times over the next several months, both in my mind and on paper. But each time I became emotional and wondered if what I wrote adequately described my deep gratitude.
Then one day, while preparing to celebrate Rosh HaShanah, I began to contemplate the meaning and traditions of the holiday. I thought about how fortunate and grateful I was to have the opportunity to celebrate the Jewish new year with a new lease on life, and I was inspired to take another stab at writing that all-important letter. I wanted to paint a picture with words. I desperately wanted the donor’s family to sense who I am, to feel the spirit within me and to think of me as worthy.
"I am a 58-year-old woman who grew up the middle child between an older and younger brother in a small town in New Jersey," I began. "I am married to my husband Bill and in November we celebrated our 34th wedding anniversary. We have no children.
"I was a middle school Spanish teacher for 33 years until my retirement three years ago. The best part about teaching was when I closed the door and it was just the kids and me. Being a teacher played a huge part in helping to define who I am. My main goal was to make each student comfortable, enjoy being in class, and hopefully learn with some degree of mastery.
"When the magnet school I taught in became the school of Science and Technology, the computer was thrust upon me. It was a requirement to take classes and utilize the technology in the classroom. I still remember the first time I had a child tell me it was ‘fun’ after doing a lesson on conjugating verbs on the computer. I went on to present workshops to other foreign language teachers and to publish an article about incorporating the use of technology in the world language classroom. At present, the computer is a personal ‘friend.’ I enjoy the e-mail, music, photography opportunities, and confess to playing a game or two, as well.
"Teaching a foreign language instilled in me a love of travel. Hoping to bring the Spanish-speaking world to my students, I chose to visit Spanish-speaking countries, Peru and my trek up Machu Picchu being my favorite. Whether they liked it or not, the kids in my classes endured numerous slide presentations.
"After being diagnosed with liver disease, my travel theme became ‘See the USA.’ I have a particular love for the Southwest and turquoise jewelry. But within the last few years my world became limited to the area within an hour or two of New Jersey. The fear of missing the phone call or not being close enough to get to the hospital came to rule my life.
"I have always had an interest in sports, perhaps because I grew up with brothers. I enjoy playing tennis and golf. I missed the last two golf seasons but recently received clearance to play again. It is now eight months post-surgery. My blood levels are perfect, and I have regained my strength. I eagerly anticipate the spring and returning to the links. No matter how poorly I play, I will be so grateful just for the opportunity."
I read and reread my letter. Was it enough? Did it convey how much I appreciated their decision and the impact it had on so many lives? As the Ten Days of Penitence came to a close and I stood for the Yiskor service at my synagogue, I said the special prayer for those who have lost a mother. But then it occurred to me that there was another special prayer I needed to say one for my donor. How much more special could anyone be to me?
Life is precious. I think I always knew that, but now it is a constant thought. I urge everyone to consider becoming an organ donor. According to Rabbi Neal Borovitz, the religious leader of Temple Sholom of River Edge, "Organ transplantation is a lifesaving measure, and the donors are truly exhibiting the greatest level of both tzedakah and chesed." I leave you with that thought.
A grateful recipient named Bonnie.